In the Driveway; the Heart Unveiled
It happened in the spring of my junior year of high school, I think. Or it happened in the fall of my senior year. Or maybe it happened late summer right before school started. I should be able to remember because it matters. It matters because if it happened in the spring of my junior year, I hadn’t yet crossed over. I hadn’t begun lying and taking drugs. I was still best friends with S.—we hadn’t had the falling out that my taking drugs caused or my hanging out with people she didn’t think were any good for me. It would have been before she turned me into the headmaster and before the headmaster told my parents. I would finish the junior year with my excellent grades still intact; I’d still be wanting to please everyone but especially Mrs. Bierds, my French and Latin teacher whose hopes for the future inexplicably resided in me. It couldn’t have been the fall. We danced outside without our clothes, running across the grass, leaping in the air, dragging red and orange scarves as our only cover. Too cold to do that in the fall especially since by the end of October S. and I weren’t speaking and the leaves had fallen from the maple. Late summer is a possibility—that would have been before everything cracked open. But I don’t think so because I came down with mono that summer. I would have been too sick to run around the yard without anything on. No it was spring. It was decidedly in the spring.
In the spring S. and I were a unit, a pair, a force. We were opposites but companionable—that rarest of things. We liked the way we weren’t the same. I was quiet and melancholy with a low voice and took steps no one could hear. She was loud, boisterous, crashing about through the house like a clodhopper. We were both smart and dutiful students but with different strengths—she was analytical and precise, the daughter of a scientist, I was intuitive and associative, the daughter of a daydream. I encouraged her to write poetry; she encouraged me to dissect the sheep’s eyeball. That spring we were both feeling the itch to change, to leave behind the trappings and routines of our lives. We wanted something. But we were 16, or I was still 15 and she was 16. We couldn’t even drive. We lived at home, entirely dependent upon our parents, striving for the good grades and test scores that would get us into the good colleges we would apply to next year.
Something reckless was brewing in me that spring. S. was more content still cocooned within the family, though beginning to be restless for a place outside it. I was already ready to abandon mother and father and sisters, abandon the cornfields that stood like sentries behind our house and the low growing alfalfa at the side of the roads cutting through the farm land where I lived, and abandon the tiny town, improbably named East Texas, whose white steeple I could see from the top of the hill behind our house. I climbed the hill every day for that view. What did this view that I climbed to see every day mean to me? The steeple was incongruous rising up as it did over the flat lands around it, stuck in the middle of a town that was about 500 yards long and didn’t even boast a stop sign. It wasn’t a spiritual beacon, I can say that. It was a symbol for what I hoped to leave behind and never see again.
That spring we wanted to break clean of everything we knew and had been but we could not. We wanted to mount a horse and ride out of our provincial class-bound town of country clubs built on velvet smooth greens, where our mothers wiled away afternoons playing bridge and everyone knew everyone else’s business. And if a horse wasn’t possible than a Mustang convertible. But we could not. We didn’t even have a learner’s permit between us. I was born into the wrong family in the wrong place with the wrong name. S. didn’t itch the way I did—she itched but it didn’t go that deep. This was the spring before my parents gave up on me and sent me away to board at Moravian Seminary for Girls, the year before both my grandmothers would die of heart attacks, one in bed, and one on the toilet, both in the middle of the night. I would witness the one and only time I saw my father cry after his mother’s funeral when he and I took a walk along the country road in front of our house that curved in such a way you could never see what was coming.
My parents were going out for the night and S. and I hatched a plan. I was the main architect of mischief, as always. She got a pack of Camel non-filters, I got the matches. Her parents dropped her off at my house. We ordered pizza. I got out an ice bucket and started mixing drinks—gin, vodka, scotch. Didn’t have the faintest idea whether you mixed them together or how much. Just started pouring. When it got dark, I turned on the outside lights and said, “Come On.” I brought the bottles. We started running back and forth across our back yard, sheltered on all sides by corn field and woods and ravines. We were out of our minds drunk, screaming and howling and leaping around like we were some kind of cowboy ballerinas. And then we took off our clothes—we were naked under the moon, dancing in my backyard, baring our skinny selves in radiant dew. We staggered around the maple while our bottles of vodka, glinting scotch and gin poured their acid contents into receptive ground.
S. hid her head inside the crimson maple tree and from its deeply parted leaves she said Atomic Bomb. She said bomb again and again until above my yard in East Texas, Pennsylvania when the grass was brilliant with May dew, I saw mushroom clouds exploding in the black sky. Each time she said the word bomb the sky burst a little more overhead. And the big dark plumes and puffs just hung there. In between she was saying something about her father and the bomb—the Manhattan Project–I couldn’t make it out but I knew it was a secret. You’d expect two girls naked in the grass to confess a petty theft, a sexual transgression, maybe some lie. Not us. Sins of the fathers, bombs of Hiroshima before we were born, that’s what passed between us.
Screaming puking running to and fro under the night sky I decided we had to get out of there and threw the Jack Daniels, the camels, and a bag of ice into the back seat of my mother’s Monte Carlo and pulled out of the garage into the driveway. I wanted to drive farther than I would ever drive again, flinging down the side of a sandy road, past a last eastern farmhouse about to plant crops to the shuffling white froth of a moonlit sea. I wanted to drive us to a different sky, one calm and seamless. But I did not. I drove us round and around the wide square driveway, down the hill and around the turnabout with the lit lantern beacon in the middle across the street from the red barn and the muddy yard and then back up the hill and around again until it dawned on me my parents would be coming home. Somewhere during the third circle S. had slumped down into the seat, all the piss drained right out of her. Naked behind the wheel, I was still going, barely, and I turned the head of the car towards the mouth of the garage where my mother parked it and aimed as best I could, which as it turned out was not very good. She always slid right in to the left side without any trouble at all. I hit the side post and stopped dead, half in the garage and half out, at an angle that suggested it would take the skill of a magician to maneuver it out before it could be straightened to go in.
We left the car with the motor running and my door on the driver’s side ajar.
When my parents came home they found S. throwing up in the bedroom and I was boiling water for instant coffee, that’s what I saw people do in the movies when they had too much to drink, only I couldn’t manage to get a mug out of the cabinet and place it on the counter. Each time, I let go of the mug before it reached the counter and it shattered on the floor. Then I’d grab another and try it again. By the time my parents found me I had broken five mugs and was standing barefoot in the shards.
S. never mentioned her father and the bomb again as if it had never happened and sometimes I wonder if it did. Did I make it up—was I hallucinating? The mushroom clouds were like a bad acid trip that would never end. But I don’t think so. When I close my eyes, I see S. and I running through the grass that will always be growing on the dew wet ground. We turn our faces to the riven sky where the bombs will be falling and not falling and never drift away. We will stand by the great red maple that will never brighten more than on that night and look quietly upon each other and never turn away.
MARCIA ALDRICH is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. She has been the editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction. Companion to An Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on Haze, a narrative of marriage and divorce during her college years. Her website: MarciaAldrich.com. Her favorite road is California State Route 1, specifically Route One, Big Sur Coast that runs from San Luis Obispo to Carmel.